INDEPENDENCE DEBATE: Alistair Darling is preparing a sustained attack on Alex Salmond’s North Sea oil estimates when the two men meet tomorrow night in the second televised debate of the referendum campaign.
The Better Together leader’s strategists believe that last week’s intervention in the independence campaign by the oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood, in which he challenged the Scottish Government’s oil and gas forecasts, is key to defeating the First Minister.
Darling’s advisers expect Salmond will put in a far stronger performance than during the first head-to-head contest this month, when the former Labour chancellor took him to task over the currency.
Salmond is expected to put the future of the NHS at the heart of his argument for independence, making the case that it would be threatened by Conservative privatisation if Scotland remains in the United Kingdom.
Better Together, however, believes Wood’s assertion that depleting oil and gas production will have serious economic implications by 2030, has given the No side an unexpected trump card as Darling goes into the debate.
Those briefing Darling claim Wood has knocked a hole in Salmond’s core economic argument and will use the North Sea oil businessman’s own oil forecasts to counter the SNP leader’s claims that only independence can secure the NHS.
Tomorrow night, Darling is expected to draw from Treasury analysis, conducted last week before the referendum purdah, which is based on Wood’s North Sea Oil estimates.
The Treasury analysis suggests an independent Scotland faces a basic rate of income tax of 30 per cent (the current rate is 20 per cent) or 5 per cent cuts to public spending when Wood’s figures are factored in.
According to Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, applying a 5 per cent cut across the board would mean the loss of around 30,000 public sector jobs. If health and welfare were protected from budget cuts, Alexander said the job losses would amount to 60,000 in Scotland.
The calculations were made after Wood publicly took issue with Salmond’s claims that another 24 billion barrels of oil and gas will be extracted from the North Sea in the coming years. Wood, who built up his multinational Aberdeen-based Wood Group from nothing, warned last week that the figure would only be 15-16.5 billion barrels, a figure that suggests the Scottish Government has over-estimated the available reserves by 60 per cent. Using Wood’s figures, the Treasury has calculated the Scottish deficit per head of population at £1,390. This compares with £890 per head of population using the Scottish Government’s forecasting figures. Alexander argued that about £3.8 billion in extra tax would have to be raised to bridge the £700 per head gap between the two figures. That would mean the basic rate of income tax rising to 30 per cent. The alternative was cuts of 5 per cent.
Alexander, who has been helping brief Darling, said the figures undermined the SNP’s argument that the way to save the NHS was to vote Yes.
“I think that is important because it undermines the case that the SNP has made, which is built on fantastical over- optimistic oil predictions in order to pretend that somehow in an independent Scotland’s various policies could be afforded,” Alexander said.
“An independent Scotland from day one would have no choice but to make substantial cuts to public services or substantial increases to income tax for people in Scotland.”
Last night Salmond’s spokesman dismissed Alexander’s analysis as “fantasy stuff”, saying that Alexander’s own oil figures had been described as “missing a mountain of black gold” by Professor Sir Donald MacKay, the Yes-supporting businessman and former Scottish Enterprise chairman.
Salmond’s strategists claim that the First Minister will concentrate on “his more conversational approach” focused on the “watching public”.
A source close to the First Minister suggested this approach was more appealing to viewers than confrontation.
Darling was judged the winner of the last TV debate, which saw Salmond booed as he repeatedly dodged the Better Together leader’s demands for him to outline his currency Plan B.
Salmond has said that he hopes tomorrow’s BBC debate will give him another chance to explain his policy for a formal currency union, which involves an independent Scotland sharing the pound and the Bank of England with the rest of the UK. The bookies have installed Darling as favourite with Ladbrokes putting the former Labour Chancellor odds on 8/11 to come out on top.
But Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, who has also been helping Darling, said: “I think Alex Salmond will put in a strong performance but I think he has a very difficult set of cards to play, because he is haunted in the final days of this campaign by a whole series of unresolved issues.”
Salmond’s debating tactics are also expected to reflect the Yes campaign’s attempt to shift its focus from the currency to the NHS, a subject that Salmond feels will be a profitable battleground tomorrow night.
Yes Scotland’s concentration on the health service was in evidence yesterday when Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, said that Labour’s Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham had warned that the NHS south of the Border would be pushed “off the cliff edge” by Tory privatisation and cuts.
Sturgeon said: “People across Scotland are waking up to the fact that a Yes vote will give us one opportunity to ensure that we protect our NHS. And by enshrining it in our constitution, we will keep it in public hands.”
Yes Scotland’s claims have been strongly disputed by the No campaign, who point out that control over health is devolved to Holyrood.
That point was made forcibly by the former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell yesterday when he spoke at a Better Together gathering in Edinburgh. Lord McConnell accused the SNP of “hypocrisy” and lying about the NHS.
“I have been so angry by the way that this lie about the NHS has been put across consistently by people who know better. Nicola Sturgeon knows the NHS is under the control of the Scottish Parliament.
“She was a Health Secretary who continued with most of the policies that were followed by Malcolm Chisholm and Andy Kerr [Labour Health Secretaries].”
Tomorrow’s debate will be screened on BBC One Scotland and across the rest of the UK on BBC Two from 8.30pm on Monday. It will also be shown on C-SPAN in the US.
The 90-minute event will be staged at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow in front of an audience of 200 people selected by polling and research consultancy ComRes.